Thursday, December 4, 2008

And here I thought my "child-bearing" hips were just fine

Here you go, ladies--another reason to fret about your bodies.

An imperfect body might be just what the doctor ordered for women and key to their economic success, an anthropologist now says.

While pop culture seems to worship the hourglass figure for females, with a tiny waist, big boobs and curvy hips à la Marilyn Monroe, this may not be optimal, says Elizabeth Cashdan of the University of Utah.

That's because the hormones that make women physically stronger, more competitive and better able to deal with stress also tend to redistribute fat from the hips to the waist.

So in societies and situations where women are under pressure to procure resources and otherwise bring home the bacon, they may be less likely to have the classic hourglass figure, Cashdan hypothesizes in the December issue of the journal Current Anthropology. Read more...

Sigh...What would the media do if they weren't obsessing over the "ideal" female form and, in the process, coercing women to obsess about how they fail to measure up to the latest image of perfection? This news report greeted me on the Yahoo home page under the headline "Ideal female figure is not hourglass." Several other news agencies are telling the same story. Like the citizens of Oz in the 1977 film "The Wiz," who donned new gear everytime their vaunted leader picked a new favorite color, women are expected to scramble to achieve a new societal body ideal, now that we've been set straight.

You know, I always thought my wide hips were acceptable, because, well, I'm just built this way. They are my maternal grandmother's hips and probably the hips of female ancestors through history. It's not about fat or thin--I've been both--my hips are just my hips and time spent worrying about them, or trying to make them something they are not is time wasted. No, turns out my curvy hip-to-waist ratio was en vogue because men like their women with "childbearing" hips. Oh, and maybe my fat distribution somehow makes me less likely to develop chronic diseases, although that seems simplistic to me.

Until now, scientists (and apparently Western society) thought a curvy figure trumped other body shapes. The idea was based on results from medical studies that suggested a curvy waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 or lower (meaning the waist is significantly narrower than the hips) is associated with higher fertility and lower rates of chronic disease.

In addition, past research has revealed that men prefer a ratio of 0.7 or lower when looking for a mate. The preference makes perfect sense, according to evolutionary psychologists, because the low ratio is a reliable signal of a healthy, fertile woman. Along those lines, Playboy centerfolds tend to have a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.68, Cashdan found.

Actually, I could write a whole post about how the hourglass really hasn't been a societal beauty ideal since the 50s. Women's magazines have been trying to get me to camaflauge my wider bottom half for years. I'd say the beauty standard these days involves the body shape of a 13-year-old boy with pneumatic boobs attached. No matter, though. the hourglass is out and it seems I may not have won the genetic lottery:

Specifically, Cashdan compiled data from 33 non-Western populations and four European populations, finding the average waist-to-hip ratio for women was above 0.8. So if 0.7 is the magic number both in terms of health and male mate choice, Cashdan wondered why most women exhibit a significantly higher ratio.
That's where the hormones come in.

Androgens, a class of hormones that includes testosterone, increase waist-to-hip ratios in women by increasing visceral fat, which is carried around the waist. But on the upside, increased androgen levels are also associated with increased strength, stamina and competitiveness. Cortisol, a hormone that helps the body deal with stressful situations, also increases fat carried around the waist.

Hormone levels linked with a high waist-to-hip ratio could lead to such health benefits, which would be particularly useful during times of stress, Cashdan said. These benefits could outweigh those attained from having the tiny waist, hourglass figure, she said.

I'm no scientist, but it seems the real finding here is that women's bodies are evolving to match our changing environments--you know, like human bodies have always done. The rigors of modern living mean that our bodies produce more androgens and more of the stress hormone cortisol and our shapes are changing because of this. As with all evolution, there will be positive and negative results. This is emphatically NOT about ideal shapes.

Professor Cashdan is clear on this. She says, "This is about trade-offs," Cashdan said. "The human body is a compromise. Take the ideal skin color. If you have light skin you have less risk of being deficient in vitamin D, but on the other hand you are at greater risk of melanoma."

So why are so many news outlets, including Yahoo, positioning these study results as the triumph of one female ideal over another? Yahoo's homepage teaser shows two 20-something, presumably narrow-hipped models next to the copy: "While pop culture tends to celebrate curves and a tiny waist, scientists find that this shape may be more desirable."

Scientists found no such thing, if you read the study results. The truth about healthy female bodies hasn't changed. You can help keep yourself healthy and fit by eating a nutritious balanced diet, managing stress, getting plenty of exercise, and taking advantage of good, preventative health care. Genetics can influence your predisposition to certain ailments. Beyond that, your natural body shape is the only ideal you need worry about. If you have a thick waist, a large bust and cankles...well, dammit, work them! Be the fittest, best dressed, thick-waisted, big-boobed, cankle-having chick around. Your God-given physique may not be the current beauty ideal, but the current beauty ideal has nothing to do with your health. If I fail to live a long and healthy life, I suspect it will have less to do with my natural hip-to-waist ratio and more to do with my fondness for sodas, emotional eating and sitting in front of a screen instead of exercising.

We seldom get that truth from the media, though. We get more scientific studies spun into tyranny against women's bodies.


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